Things have changed considerably. Each and every week, I listen to dozens of songs for our Top MP3s posts, review an average of three albums, and tack on some recreational listening — I listen to a lot of songs. There are some that ran in posts I wrote last week that I won’t remember tomorrow, and some that I’m certain will be spinning around in my iPod for years to come, or until we can just pull up mp3s with our brainwaves or whatever. But the fact remains that anybody with a laptop can put a song into my inbox, so the number of songs in each camp listed in the previous paragraph multiplies. Instead of 100 songs on the FM dial, there are 1.000, plus 10,000 on Sirius, 100,000 on Pandora, and 100,000,000 on YouTube.
There are innately negative consequences of the way in which we currently consume music, but there are also innate benefits. My 11-year-old cousin can’t get enough of “Back in Black”, and blares it through his Apple headphones as loudly as he can, as if to prove a point. Because he is 11, he also loves LMFAO, and I’d bet anything that the play count for “Party Rock Anthem” matches AC/DC. Some might argue that this is the precise problem, that “kids today” are inundated with simple pop and aren’t panning for musical gold. But what 11-year-old ever did?
Most 11 year olds in 1979 weren’t digging through crates for the new Sun Ra vinyl. The hardcore music nerds (a term I endearingly use, as a major nerd myself) of every generation do the digging when their time comes, and they do it in whatever way they can, whether it’s asking a record store employee about a DIY punk cassette recorded next to the Toyota Tercel in the garage or skimming through countless MySpace pages. The fact that my cousin can cue up any song on YouTube and have a shot at discovering a life-changing moment is astounding in the same way that endlessly looping through influential artists on Allmusic.com was for me.
If songs have the same potential lifespan and power in the public mind today as they did 30 years ago, there must be something else going on when it comes to these sorts of lists, and their occasional lack of immediate history. Surely there are more bad songs recorded today, but there are also more songs recorded today. The ratio of long-lasting critical hits to totally forgotten melodies shouldn’t be immensely different, at least not to the point at which many Best Songs lists imply.
Perhaps it’s a fear of future palm-forehead collisions (“We thought what was a best of all time?!”) that keeps one of this year’s 520 Top mp3s off of this list. Or maybe its that overwhelming sense of nostalgia, reverence for those that came before. Or, more likely, it is a result of some combination of those potentials, and a hundred degrees of grey. Regardless, a song that debuted today may well deserve to be put in our Best Songs list; when we get to our amended list on our tenth anniversary, we’ll let you know.
Technically speaking, every song can live on forever, and every individual example varies in orders of magnitude from that eternal potential, independent of the time and manner of consumption. Those shouting about the shorter shelf life of modern songs aren’t doing their due diligence, the work of digging through the greater volume of material in the market. Features like our Top mp3 posts are essentially helping hands, a little “You Are Here” sticker in the barely decipherable mass of the music web.
There’s nothing really new about that, though. Every generation digs for the music that they want and the music that they need, the pop wildfires and the critical darlings, and every generation will always have both. The manner in which we find those songs has changed, and our highly polarizing task is to be that friend that can point out where to find something good, to banter with over a late night cup of coffee, to revel in finding those life-changing moments called “songs”, together.
When I first heard “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” for the first time, I discovered a larger world. My heart was cracked open wider. For my mother, that song was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. The songs are different, the times are different, the manners in which we listened are different, but the repercussions are the same: Songs change lives, and we always ought to be searching out those that can.